Design Dilemma #3: How Do I Decorate an Open Plan Space?

Thought by many to be a modern invention, open plan living has actually been around for over 100 years. In 1901, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright published an article in Ladies Home Journal, one of the leading American women’s magazines of the 20th century. It proposed a radically new layout for the home that placed the kitchen in the centre with a number of fluid spaces leading off it. This new way of living would enable family members to ‘do their own thing, but all together.’


The idea took a while to catch on and, in the UK at least, we’ve only started embracing open plan living in the last 25 years. The way we live and entertain has become less formal with the kitchen no longer consigned to the back of the house. Families with young children like the idea of knocking walls down so they can see them (although many dream of reinstating them once toddlers become teenagers) and budding chefs do not want to be isolated in another room, away from the action.


While providing a relaxed and sociable way of living, open plan spaces do present a number of design challenges. How do you avoid a hanger like effect? How do you introduce warmth and interest when you have so few walls?! Read on to discover our 5 top tips…..

1. Start with the floor

There are two schools of thought when it comes to flooring. Some say that using different materials is the perfect way to zone an open plan space. `You may like the idea of tiles in the kitchen area for example and wood everywhere else. Depending on the shape of the tile and the skill of your installer, you can blend the two so hard lines are avoided and one flooring type effectively bleeds into the other. We’ve seen this work beautifully with hexagonal tiles.

Others argue that it’s important to use one flooring type - to give continuity and to accentuate the sense of space. There’s no doubt a small open plan space will feel larger if the flooring is consistent throughout. Rugs can then be used to create zones. If your budget allows, choose a rug for a living area that’s large enough to accommodate all the furniture.

Staying with the floor, if you have the luxury of starting from scratch, we would always advocate underfloor heating. Radiators will take up valuable wall space (in a space with very few walls!) and you will inevitably end up with pockets of cold air that radiators can’t reach.

2. Get the layout right

Layout is crucial for a space to function effectively. You’ll need to think about how people use and navigate the space. Avoid placing furniture around the walls and instead have certain items in the middle. A sofa positioned with its back to a dining space will effectively delineate areas for eating and relaxing. Use plants and bookcases to further zone the space and to provide softness and interest. And don’t forget how effective curtains can be as room dividers, adding drama, colour and texture. They can provide much needed privacy too.

3. Avoid kitchens that look too kitcheny

Kitchens by their nature are full of hard surfaces. Unless you’re aiming for an edgy industrial look in your open plan space, you’ll want to soften where you can. Open shelving, plants, books and other items on display will work wonders. Hang artwork and statement wall lights instead of wall cabinets. Consider fabric as an alternative to cabinet doors and dress windows with gorgeous blinds or curtains.

4. Lighting is key

Probably the single most important element of design, nowhere is the right lighting more important than in an open plan space. You’ll need to provide sufficient light so everyone can see what they’re doing but you should also embrace lighting as the most powerful tool for adding drama and interest.


Downlights should be consigned to the kitchen if used at all and instead, decorative pendants, table and floor lamps should take centre stage. Why not hang a pendant low over a coffee table or in a reading corner? Again, if you’re starting from scratch, consider floor sockets for table and floor lamps to enable you to have this sort of lighting in the centre of the room and avoid unsightly (and hazardous) cables trailing to the wall.


Another important tip with lighting is to have different circuits for maximum flexibility and to always, always install dimmer switches.

5. Use colour wisely and with purpose

By which we mean, don’t splash it everywhere with wild abandon. Paint can be used to effectively define a space but make sure there’s a reason for it. For example, you may wish to create a cosy reading or dining corner by painting two adjoining walls and even the ceiling immediately above in a chosen colour. If it happens that the corner contains a window, then choose a fabric for blinds or curtains that matches your wall colour.


And remember, colour blocking doesn’t have to take the form of horizontal or vertical lines. Triangles or other geometric shapes are very effective too, adding dynamic interest and a sense of fun.